Once in Royal David’s City, the return of celebrated playwright Michael Gow to Sydney, is a product of time, age, and a life longer-lived. Gow’s writing has grown older and has shaped itself around life experience and influence; he has produced a work about dramatic form and heavily influenced by Brecht just as much as it’s about losing a parent and digging up your own roots. This is a playwright’s take on life experience.
Will Drummond, our protagonist, is considering speaking to drama students about political theatre when his mother winds up in hospital. Mentally he’s in East Berlin, talking about Brecht’s politics, about the role of emotion in theatre even when you’re aiming for thoughtful audience engagement, but he’s brought crashing back to Byron Bay.
At turns the play is mundane and dreamlike; Will moves through his life in the play like you wade through the thoughts in your mind. This is both helped and hindered by the staging by Nick Schlieper. Belvoir upstairs is again a mostly-bare stage with white curtain .The lighting is stark and for the most part impersonal; it warms to its collection of singers during transition, and occasionally to Cowell and Maggie Dence, who in one scene manages to bring more emotion than the entire rest of the play.
Brendan Cowell brings an Everyman likability to his roles but possesses a sort of spiked edge somewhere about the shoulders and in the way he holds his head. This is the reason why he’s so interesting to watch as an actor, and director Eamon Flack seems to understand the particular instrument he’s been given in Cowell: Will Drummond explains, theorises, narrates, and these are all tools of distance, but Cowell gives him a warmth and accessibility that saves the piece from falling into pretension.
The entire acting company is well-cast and well-used. Their performances arise from the confines of the script, which is frequently meandering, even in all its sharpness. Tara Morice grounds the play by performing multiple roles, most notably a teacher. Helen Buday is the other star of the piece because her character Gail, who watches over Will’s mother, is humanely, ubiquitously touched by sorrow.
Once in Royal David’s City is one for those of an age with Gow and with Will Drummond; the emotional beats are identifiable and recognisable – a mother in flashback talking about losing her son on the beach, the death of a parent, the renegotiation of life dreams as the one time director now may have to insult himself by talking Brecht to a school that cares little and students who may even care less – but they may not land unless you recognise yourself within it.